Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 7 News List

New federal bills put gay-rights issues at forefront


Anti-gay bias has flared up in Hollywood and professional basketball recently, and soon the topic will be thrown into a new forum -- a reshaped Congress likely to pass the first major federal gay-rights bills.

Wary conservative leaders, as well as gay-rights advocates, share a belief that at least two measures will win approval this year: a hate-crimes bill that would cover offenses motivated by anti-gay bias, and a measure that would outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Also on the table -- although with more doubtful prospects -- will be a measure to be introduced on Wednesday seeking repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military.

All three measures surfaced in previous sessions of Congress, at times winning significant bipartisan backing but always falling short of final passage. This year, with Democrats now in control and many Republicans likely to join in support, the hate-crimes and workplace bills are widely expected to prevail.

"With liberals in control, there's a good possibility they'll both pass," said Matt Barber, a policy director with the conservative group Concerned Women for America. "They're both dangerous to freedom of conscience, to religious liberties, to free speech."

If approved by Congress, the bills would head to the White House. Activists on both the left and right are unsure whether President George W. Bush would sign or veto them.

For gay-rights leaders -- whose efforts to legalize same-sex marriage have been rebuffed by many states -- the congressional votes are keenly anticipated after years of lobbying.

"This is a major step in our struggle," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "I know there's a lot of despair on the other side."

The workplace bill -- titled the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA -- is the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The bill that emerges is expected to expand on earlier versions to cover not only sexual orientation but also gender identity, thus extending protections to transgender employees. Churches and small businesses would be exempt.

For many Americans, ENDA's provisions would be familiar. More than 85 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, as do 17 states.

And publicly, there is increasingly little tolerance for overt anti-gay bias. The National Basketball Association swiftly repudiated retired all-star Tim Hardaway after he spoke this month of hating gays, while TV actor Isaiah Washington apologized and sought counseling after using a gay slur in reference to a fellow actor on Grey's Anatomy.

Advocacy groups also say there have been huge strides in regard to protections for transgender people -- with nine states, scores of major corporations now banning discrimination based on gender identity.

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